The ballot of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers union (RMT) members on London Underground for strikes to stop ticket office closures and job cuts returned a 77% majority, on a turnout of 40%. The majority for actions short of strike was even higher.
The RMT has announced two 48-hour strikes, each timed to impact across three days, for 4-6 February and 11-13 February. It has also announced a ban on overtime and rest-day working for station staff starting from 17 January, and a revenue action (a refusal to carry out duties such as checking tickets) on 7, 10, and 14 February.
A rally is planned for Thursday 16 January to launch “Hands off London Transport”, a campaign for decent public transport in London involving unions, disability rights groups, pensioners’ organisations, and other working-class community groups.
The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), which represents mainly white-collar workers on London Underground, begins a strike ballot on 17 January. TSSA’s ballot closes on 27 January, meaning it could coordinate any potential strike action with the RMT.
Beginning the dispute with 48-hour, rather than 24-hour, strikes is a positive step. In the 2010 dispute against similarly devastating cuts, the RMT and TSSA never went beyond 24-hour strikes, allowing bosses to ride out their impact with scabs and managers covering duties. That kind of strikebreaking will be much harder over 48 hours. Longer strikes will almost certainly be necessary to win the dispute, but starting with 48 hours is a statement of seriousness that is simultaneously achievable and accessible for a workforce not yet ready to launch all-out indefinite strikes.
The announcement of the revenue strike and rest-day working and overtime bans is also a big plus. If these actions are effective, they’ll ensure that pressure is kept on in between the strike days. Other forms of creative action should be considered, as well as selective action, such as overtime bans by engineers targeted on particular weekends to disrupt particular planned engineering work.
The RMT (and TSSA, once its ballot is returned) should announce further, ongoing actions as soon as possible.
The aim should be to win the dispute as quickly as possible, but an open-ended programme of escalating action, supported by strike funds, would show management the unions are serious.
Union reps and rank-and-file activists still have a lot of work to do to make the strike and the other actions solid and effective. That means getting round every workplace, building the action, inviting members’ ideas for its future direction, and recruiting new members to the union.
The RMT’s London Transport region has created a committee which has been meeting weekly to discuss the dispute; that committee needs to be broadened out beyond existing activists to be more representative of different grades and areas, and become a genuine strike committee capable of controlling the direction of the dispute from below.
The “Hands off London Transport” campaign will also be essential for the dispute’s success. A vibrant public campaign will be a huge counterweight to the anti-union propaganda the Evening Standard will pump out every day, and will help bolster the industrial action.
It can also ensure that Tube workers aren’t left to fight the dispute alone, a sectional industrial conflict, but are joined by other unions and community groups in a fight around a key class issue: the right to decent public transport in Britain’s capital.